We love hearing stories about community orientated farming and food projects doing well. Clare Horrell Programme Manager at Just Growth reports on six projects that they are working with.
Over the last year, The Real Farming Trust through it’s Funding Enlightened Agriculture (FEA) Network has been running an innovative new funding programme across the UK for food and farming enterprises that follow agro-ecological principles. The programme provides loan and grant funding that has to be matched with funds raised by an enterprise from its community. The loan finance is provided by Co-operative and Community Finance whilst the grant element is provided by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.
Over 40 projects applied for the scheme from across the spectrum of food enterprises although the largest group were start up or developing horticulture CSAs. Amongst the other projects that applied were micro-dairies, therapeutic horticulture projects and multi-tenancy projects/land co-ops where the land is divided between multiple smallholders.
A long list of projects was then selected to undergo a one day diagnostic assessment. This assessment looked at five key areas of an enterprise:
Business planning – how well developed were its business plans
Agro-ecology – to what extent did the enterprise follow agro-ecological principles
Community finance – how embedded was the enterprise in its community and how likely would it be to successfully raise funds from its community
Governance – only enterprises registered as community benefit societies or co-operatives were eligible for funding.
Access to land/building – how secure was the project’s right to farm the land/use the site on which it was based
Because the Just Growth programme was time limited (ending in December 2016) only those enterprises that the diagnostic showed were sufficiently well developed to be able to stand a realistic chance of raising their community finance and passing the loan assessment with a maximum of three days additional expert mentoring support were selected to go forward.
Six projects have made it through to the next stage.
Below we look at those six projects, what they have done so far and where they hope to go in the future:
The Ecological Land Co-operative was set up to address the lack of affordable sites for ecological land based livelihoods in England. Having successfully bought their first plot of land and created three smallholdings at Greenham Reach in Devon, Ecological Land Co-op have used funding from the Just Growth programme to help subsidise the cost of plots at their second site. They were the first project to successfully complete their loan assessment under the Just Growth programme, and having completed a very successful share issue drew down their matching grant funding in April 2016.
“The funding from Just Growth has enabled us to reduce the price at which we will be able to offer smallholdings in our next development. This will help make the land even more accessible to new entrants to ecological horticulture and mixed farming.” Zoe Wangler, executive chair of the Ecological Land Co-operative
Between now and 2020 the Ecological Land Co-operative hope to create around 20 residential smallholdings. Their business model forecasts that by 2020, income from the rent of the smallholdings will cover their overheads and member interest payments. Capital for purchase of the land will need to still come from additional share issues and loans.
Veg Box People is the latest pillar in the alternative food chain being led in Manchester by the Kindling Trust. It is a box scheme modelled on the highly successful Growing Communities model and it aims to provide an outlet for the produce grown by the producer members of the buyers and growers co-operative Manchester Veg People.
With funds from the Just Growth programme, Veg Box People are expanding their existing customer base at the University of Manchester and will also be looking to start new drop off points beyond the university.
“Just Growth is giving Veg Box People the resources we need to develop fairer markets for new organic growers locally. This is a crucial part of creating a more sustainable and fairer food system for Greater Manchester, and we are really excited to be part of the programme.” Rob Alderson
Veg Box People successfully completed their loan assessment and raised over £20k through subscriptions to their box scheme enabling them to drawdown their Just Growth grant in April 2016.
The four remaining projects in the Just Growth programme are at different stages along the process of acquiring the full blended package of funding:
Plotgate CSA is a new CSA run by Amy Willoughy, Dan Britton, Jane Sweetman and Jon Cousins. It is based on a 10 acre site near Glastonbury in Somerset. During the summer of 2015 they started delivering their produce to 10 customers through a weekly box scheme but their involvement in the Just Growth programme is helping them to scale up to deliver 30 boxes over the course of this summer and improve and extend their infrastructure to grow to 60 boxes in 2017.
Their share offer which launched in April 2016 reached its maximum of £25k with an extraordinary £14k being raised in the last three days of the share offer. It was a classic example of everyone waiting until the last minute to pledge their support. Pretty hairy if your livelihood depends on the offer being successful, but commonplace amongst community share offers. What the share offer proved however, is just how deep the local support for the project is, with 49 of the 64 investors living locally. Having worked with Maurice McCartney of Fresh Management Solutions on their business planning and financial projections, Plotgate have submitted their loan application and hope to drawdown the loan and grant element of the Just Growth funding by the end of June.
Scotland the Bread began in 2012 as a collaboration between farmers, millers, bakers and researchers to re-establish a grain, flour and bread supply that is good for people and the environment. In 2015 it was one of the projects supported by the A Team Challenge, which enabled it to buy small-scale, on-farm equipment and involve community growers in trialling heritage Scottish wheats. Funding from Just Growth will enable the Society to pursue its programme of research into more nutritious wheats, introduce innovative milling technology and produce freshly-milled flour from grain grown by one of its partner farmers. At the same time, it is stimulating a market for improved grain and flour by teaching the skills to bake it into slowly-fermented, real bread in community-scale bakeries.
Since joining the Just Growth programme, Scotland the Bread has been working with local advisor, Martin Meteyard, who has helped them develop business plans and financial forecasts so that they are ready to apply for loan funding, to recruit a proficient Board of Directors and to navigate the complexities of registering the Bread For Good Community Benefit Society, bringing the project into community ownership. Scotland The Bread has launched a share offer to raise £30k by 31 July 2016. If you would like to support them please visit www.scotlandthebread.org
Sacred Earth is an organisation based in East Sussex with social, educational, agricultural, ecological and therapeutic aims. As well as running their own projects and programmes they also support entrant farmers, rural craft entrepreneurs and nature-oriented therapists by providing affordable access to land, tools and infrastructure and project management, sales and marketing support. Their vision is to create a thriving community of farmers, teachers, mentors, land stewards, therapists and volunteers working together on the land in support the local and wider community in a variety of ways. In addition to their long standing educational work, they have recently launched Sacred Earth Biochar, a new agroecology enterprise which produces saleable char-based products from waste wood from their woodland. They are also supporting two other new agricultural projects on the land: a herbal CSA and quarterly herb box scheme and a farming project raising Large Black pigs (one of the rarest species of pig in the UK) and other animals.
With help from the Just Growth programme from specialist advisor, Helen Melia, they have converted from a Community Interest Company (CIC) to a Community Benefit Society – a more appropriate legal structure for them in the long run – and pooled together the business plans from the individual enterprises on the site into one coherent whole.
They are currently receiving support through co-ops UK The Hive to help them prepare for their share issue which they expect to launch in September.
Hempen is a worker’s co-operative that grows and produces organic hemp. It is currently setting up the infrastructure to process the hemp into a number of different products. As well as the hemp products, one of the key aims of the co-op is to provide good jobs in agriculture. It has raised nearly £5k through crowdfunding and has raised over £20k through loan stock. Through Just Growth they are working with Helen Melia to fine tune their financial model in preparation for a loan application.
To date, Hempen have converted a shipping container to create their hemp processing unit. The de-huller (which removes the shells) and oil press are in so we expect the first oils to be coming out of the container very soon. They will initially be sold at farmers’ markets, festivals and through co-operative distributors. Their organic oil and shelled seed will shortly be available online http://www.hempen.co.uk.
Just Growth 2?
The fact that the Just Growth programme was many times over-subscribed indicates how much demand there is for innovative funding ideas for the agro-ecological sector. It is very difficult at the moment for enterprises to secure finance. They are often viewed as too small and/or too risky.
The Real Farming Trust believe that there is a real opportunity to help the sector grow through developing more innovative structures of financing that wean the sector off its dependence on grants but at the same time does not burden it with unrealistic debt. The Trust is currently working on an idea to create a social investment fund for agriculture that focuses on the social and environmental returns rather than financial ones. If successful, the fund could be a key way of moving agro-ecology to the mainstream with all the associated benefits that would bring for our food, our environment and our health.